One question that kept coming back to me as I read through Lloyd Pettiford’s chronicling of the Premier League’s opening quarter of a century was why do football fans find it so difficult to acknowledge how important the sport is to them? We get a constant barrage of stories of the passion of supporters, the community that it brings and the bonds it can forge, but there’s always got to be some caveat – that it’s just a game. You mustn’t ever think seriously about it, any sincere feelings must be laughed off. A doctor’s job matters more than any footballer’s yet merely living isn’t enough, you have to have things to do and football is one of the better ways of killing the time – as Carlo Ancelotti said “football is the most important of the least important things in life”. There’s a book to be written on the absurdist nature of being a football supporter: of investing so much time and effort in things that are unlikely to change your lot in life. This book isn’t it.
This book is wrapped in the insecurity that leaves this absurdism bare. If football is important enough that you can spend months if not years compiling a book on it, that you can then expect a market for, then why can’t you admit that it means something to you? Every time the book gets near touching on something, it peels back, laughing maniacally. “Just a load of blokes kicking a ball about, isn’t it? HAHAHAHAHAHA” it averts its eyes and takes a big gulp, hoping you haven’t noticed it showed the weakness of caring about something.
This wouldn’t be quite so unbearable had it actually been funny. The book often mistakes references to comedy shows – Red Dwarf, That Mitchell and Webb Look and Monty Python all getting namechecks – for comedy of its own, or it’s laced with sarcasm (in much the same way water is laced with hydrogen) it feels the need to apologise for: “Wahey! Nah, only messing. Honest. You’re not so bad. Or are you?! Ha! No, but seriously please enjoy the book.”
Nevertheless, it’s understandable the author feels the need to add a flourish to the writing because the fans he talks to don’t give him much to work with. Pettiford states in the introduction that “without fan input… a history of the Premier League could easily go… ‘After Manchester United beat Leeds 1-0 on Saturday March the 3rd, Arsenal needed to get something at Sheffield Wednesday, on Tuesday. They drew 1-1, but won their next 3 matches to put the pressure back on Fergie’s boys who stuttered to a draw at Selhurst Park but then thrashed Sunderland, West Ham and Southampton in their next three games.’ And so on” but this is how it turns out even with fan input – wikipedia summaries with “and then there was a pitch invasion” shoehorned in at the end. It’s a shame because some of the funny stories from fans about following their team through the years would probably be interesting – anyone who’s been on an away day can tell you the match itself is almost peripheral – instead it’s just miserable bitter bores whining that things have changed. The often repeated moans about money flooding the game and pricing out fans are probably where the book’s at its best, although that says more about the rest of the content.
There’s some terrible decisions made here though. There’s an entire chapter devoted to supporters’ songs in which Pettiford makes it clear he doesn’t actually like them, bigs up cricket’s Barmy Army and the Bundesliga in addition to repeatedly cooing over a Notts County song about a wheel falling off a wheelbarrow, even giving it second place in the best Premier League songs despite them never getting near the top division. He also makes a joke of his bias for and against Southampton and Manchester United respectively however it really does begin to grate not long into the book – the most glaring example being the decision to focus on Southampton in United’s 1999 treble winning season.
The greatest summation of the book is given when it ends on a multiple page defence of cricket by someone with a double-barrelled surname.
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of the book was provided for review